I’m off to Madrid on business for a few days.  I’ll be back on Sunday, maybe having fought a bull or two.

UEFA Champions League Final

Manchester United 1 – 1 Chelsea (Man Utd win 6-5 on penalties)

Following Zenit St. Petersburg’s win over Rangers last week, today’s result means that everybody in our household is celebrating European cup glory.

Incidentally, the match kicked off at 5:45am Sakhalin time, so I leaped out of bed at 5:00am with the intention of taking a shower before going over to the nearby hotel where they were showing it (refer to this post to understand why I could not watch it at home).  Unsurprisingly, I found our cold water had been turned off (which seems to be a regular thing between about 1:00am and 7:00am), so I had to go without.  Last Saturday was spent without any cold water as well, making showering a similar experience to that which a lobster endures during its last moments in a posh restaurant.

Anyway, shower or no shower, I am delighted with the result.

Russia Waives Visa Requirements for Football Fans

Now this has really surprised me:

Russia has waived normal visa requirements for a 72-hour period for football fans with a ticket for the Champions League final in Moscow.

Supporters will need to present a valid match ticket, a valid passport, and a completed immigration form upon arrival in Russia, Uefa has confirmed.

I had expected the Russian immigration authorities to be far more pig-headed about it, and they must be congratulated on making this move.  Let’s hope they take it a step further and emulate the Ukrainians after the Eurovision Song Contest by removing the visa requirements for European tourists altogether.

Oil, Gas, and European Politicians

One of the consistent refrains from the left-wing of European politics is that the US government is beholden to the interests of Big Oil, even to the extent that Bush was prepared to invade Iraq on their behalf.  It is not uncommon for advocates of an enlarged and more powerful European Union to cite independence from the US as a major benefit of such a development, presumably including independence from the manipulations of major oil companies.

Anyone interested in the politics of the oil industry, such as I am, wonders why Europeans spend so much time and energy criticising links between the US government and major oil interests, yet emit no more than a squeak when their own governments prostrate themselves in front of foreign oil and gas interests.

First we had Gerhard Schroeder, former Chancellor of Germany, who in November 2005 signed a $5bn agreement with Russia’s Gazprom to supply natural gas:

Officials including Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov presided over the ceremonial welding of the first section of pipe at Babayevo in Russia’s Vologda region, where the Baltic link will diverge from an existing trunk pipeline and head for the coast.

Gazprom has teamed up with Germany’s E.on and Wintershall, part of BASF, to build the pipeline and is looking for a potential fourth partner, although it will retain a controlling stake of 51% in the project.

The onshore section of the pipeline will run 917 kilometres to the port of Vyborg, close to Russia’s second city of St Petersburg. The 1200 kilometre subsea link will terminate at Greifswald in Germany.

Very shortly after he found himself voted out of office, no doubt thankful he’d pushed the deal through for no more than a few weeks later he’d found himself another job:

Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, is to be a director of a Russian-German pipeline consortium controlled by Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled gas group said on Friday.

As I said at the time:

Can you imagine the noise that would be made if the US signed an historic deal to export Alaskan crude to China, and George W. Bush took the reigns of the pipeline consortium weeks after leaving office?

Now if that wasn’t bad enough, Schroeder followed it up with this:

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won a court order today upholding a legal injunction to silence a political opponent who criticised his appointment to a top job at the Russian-led gas North European Gas Pipeline company (NEGP).

Guido Westerwelle, leader of the opposition Free Democrats (FDP), had suggested Schroeder acted improperly in accepting the post of supervisory board chairman of NEGP after he had helped to launch the enterprise while in office.

After Schroeder won a gagging order last month, Westerwelle challenged the ruling, citing his right to freedom of opinion.

A court in the northern city of Hamburg rejected Westerwelle’s objection so if the FDP leader repeats his allegation, he could face a fine of up to €250,000 ($300,000).

Schroeder’s comment?  This:

“I cannot understand this criticism,” Schroeder told a news conference at the headquarters of Russia’s state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom.

Now in April 2008 we have this, which also seems to be getting very little attention in the international press:

Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller could offer outgoing Italian Premier Romano Prodi a top post with the company South Stream joint venture with Italian energy group Eni, Russian media reported.

News service RIA Novosti said Daily Kommersant quoted a government source as saying that Gazprom may repeat its move to make former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder head of the shareholders’ committee for Baltic pipeline operating venture Nord Stream.

It seems as though there is a route to life after politics for failed left-wing politicians throughout Europe: sign a major pipeline deal with Gazprom in your last days of office, and enjoy a cosy position at the top of the tree in the pipeline consortium a few weeks later.

But far more worrying was this story from January of this year:

The Nord Stream consortium, which is planning to build a subsea gas pipeline from Russia to Western Europe, has called on the European Union executive for help so it can meet its construction schedule.

“If you think it is a done deal you are wrong,” Reuters quoted Wintershall boss Reinier Zwitserloot as telling reporters in Berlin.

“If we want to see gas flow through the pipeline in first half (of) 2011, all the necessary approvals must be obtained by mid-2009, but the EU Commission must help ensure that the project is not blocked by individual countries.”

Nord Stream is majority-owned by Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom, with Wintershall’s parent BASF and fellow German player E.ON owning 20% each. The Netherlands’ Gasunie has the remaining 9% stake.

Here we have a minor stakeholder in a gas pipeline consortium controlled by the non-EU Russian government calling for the EU to forbid individual countries – including those directly affected by the pipeline – from delaying its construction.

Zwitserloot said his frustration stemmed from numerous delays by individual EU countries that should not be tolerated, given a fast-rising gas shortfall in the 27-nation bloc.

The interests of a Gazprom-led pipeline consortium should take precedence over the wishes of the European electorate?

And these are the people who think the US, which regularly rejects applications from US companies to drill their own reserves, has problems with their leaders being in hock to the interests of the oil and gas industry.

Football and Visas: An Update

Following on from the post immediately below this one, the BBC has a report on the status of the visa issue for British fans wanting to go to the Champions League final in Moscow on May 21st.

Champions League final organisers are moving closer to finalising a solution for English supporters to get “express” Russian visas after meeting in Moscow.

Moving closer to finalising a solution?  They’d better get a move on.  What amuses me is how the Russians have been caught by surprise by all this.  An English team was guaranteed a place in the final following the quarter final results on 9th April, and with Arsenal, Liverpool, and Chelsea all going into the quarter finals with only Fenerbahce as the potential for an upset, it’s been highly likely that an English team will appear in Moscow since the quarter final draw was made on 14th March.  They’ve had six weeks to prepare for this, and only now, less than three weeks before kick-off, are they “moving close to finalising a solution”.  True, the Russians will now have to deal with 50,000 applications rather than the 25,000 they could have anticipated back then, but I think they’d still struggle had only one English team gotten through. 

It has been agreed in principle that match tickets can replace the official invitation usually needed for a visa.

If this actually happens, this will speed things up considerably as obtaining a letter of invitation normally takes at least a week (not to mention the £100 charge plus courier fees).  But I’m not sure I’d be comfortable putting my ticket – which are now valued on the internet at £5,000 each – into the Russian embassy, paper clipped to the back of my visa application form.

Russia is currently in the middle of a three-day public holiday. Its Embassy and Uefa could make an announcement with full details on Sunday 4 May.

That’s right: and we also have another public holiday from 8th to 11th May, which is another four days lost.

Manchester United has said that supporters planning to travel will find it easier than normal to get a visa, suggesting those on charter flights approved by the club would be eligible for special arrangements. 

I’ll believe this when I see it.

And United chief executive David Gill was part of the English delegation which met with Russian officials and Uefa in Moscow on Thursday.

“The visa issue has been there for a while,” he told MUTV before embarking on the trip. “If you are on an organised trip, your ticket will be your visa.  

Not a chance.  The ticket might serve as a letter of invitation, but try presenting your ticket to the Russian immigration official at Domodedovo Airport, and you’ll be going nowhere.

Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzkhov, has promised that the Russian Embassy and relevant authorities will make it easier for fans to get visas.

But, as agreed in principle, a match ticket could act as an official invitation – though supporters entering the country will still need to purchase a visa, currently priced at £95.

What remains, crucially, is to finalise how these visas are issued.  

Despite having experienced Russian bureaucratic incompetence for the past four years, I am still amazed they are only now trying to deal with this.

At present fans can apply for a visa through the Russian National Tourist Board in London, which is processing visas exclusively on behalf of the Russian Embassy for the Champions League final.  

This is also typically Russian: whenever things take ages or are in short supply, the reason behind it is usually because someone or some department enjoys a monopoly position at a crucial point in the decision making process.  Usually this is a state department, and is often a nice source of income for the people running it.

Though Russia insists it will ensure fans travelling to the Moscow finals get visas with minimal fuss, it has said the process would have been easier if diplomatic ties with Britain were better.

I like that: it’s not lack of planning or an archaic visa system which is the problem, it is the British government.

Looking at the visa problems, coupled with the severe shortage of hotels in Moscow and the extortionate price of taxis, I’m predicting an utter shambles.

One interesting development running in parallel to this is that Zenit St. Petersburg thrashed Bayern Munich 4-0 on Thursday, setting up a final with Glasgow Rangers on 14th May – in Manchester!  Perhaps if the issue of visas for English fans isn’t settled to the satisfaction of the FA, Zenit fans could find themselves being turned down for visas at the British consulate in St. Petersburg.